Can a brand really ‘own’ a certain colour?

coca cola logo in black and whiteColour plays a big role in visual communications (signs, typography, drawing, graphic design, illustration), there are emotional connections that are personal to each colour we see. For almost all brands colour application only initiates during the development of their logo design, and then the colour/s used will be applied consistently to their marketing collaterals.

In logo design, colour also plays a huge role in assisting consumers in remembering and identifying a brand. The acknowledgment of the prior point gave birth to the idea of brands aiming to ‘own’ a colour – as one of a brand’s highest priority.

Quickly. Think of the colour Red.

Chances are you just did that thought of red, just the colour red, and maybe whatever associations that you personally have attached to the colour.

Now. Think of Coca-Cola.

I’d like to be forward and assume that most of you thought of Coke, the colour red and then whatever associations you might have with the brand.

When you think Coca-Cola the colour red accompanies your thought but when you think of the colour red, you don’t necessarily think of Coca-Cola. Why you may ask? Because a brand can’t really ‘own’ a colour, the closest it can get to owning a colour is to have a certain colour associated with them in the minds of consumers.

Having strong associations with a certain colour becomes more crucial when coming to brands competing in the same sector or industry.

If you show the colour below to an average person, a South African in this case and ask what brand comes to their mind, I’m sure their answers will differ.

 But If you gave the very same colour and asked what brand in the banking sector comes to mind, most will probably answer: Absa Bank. Even though the values of the red differs, if you asked the same question but asked for a beverage brand, Coca Cola will probably be one of the brands that comes to most consumers’ minds.

 Hold on to that thought, think of the same (banking) sector and replace the red with green. Nedbank will likely come to your mind.

 Same sector again, but this time with the colour blue? Aha, Inspired. Motivated. Involved – Standard Bank!

The four above brands have built associations in consumers’ minds to these colours through one of branding’s golden rules, consistency.

It is most brands’ dream to ‘own’ a colour, more especially in their sector/industry of trade.

Cadbury even went as far as trying to register the colour purple as their trademark, after its dispute with Darrell Lea in relation to the latter’s usage of the colour purple on one of its products. But Cadbury lost the latest ’round’, The Federal Court of Australia ruled that Darrell Lea had not ‘passed off’ its products as those of Cadbury’s, or breached the Trade Practices Act by selling chocolates in purple packaging.

The judge said he was not satisfied that Darrell Lea’s use of the purple packaging “has resulted, or would result, in a hypothetical ordinary and reasonable member of the class constituted by prospective purchasers of chocolate being misled or deceived.”

While colour on a logo and the over all brand identity is usually used to communicate a message, brands sometimes sacrifices a colour that communicates their message best for another ‘competitor-free’ colour, simply because there’s an existing competitor already using the colour.

In respect to competition, colour is mainly used to differentiate a brand from its competitors rather than communicate.

Brands can only ‘own’ consumers’ associations with a particular colour to their brand, not the colour itself.

  • Dithapelo Kgonyane Said:

    Well it must be tough to create a unique colour to communicate to the consumers, research has to be done into order to check the existing colour to avoid confusion in the end. e.g KFC and ABSA both use red colour, wait please explain what differentiate this two industries, is it their services?

    And please explain the different on their colours.
    — On March 4th, 2009 at 10:49 pm [permarlink]
  • Mokokoma Mokhonoana Said:

    Dithapelo Kgonyane: KFC and ABSA are in two different sectors; food and banking. While the two companies might aim to serve the same group of consumers, they are not really competitors.

    From a design perspective, the two ‘reds’ are not of the exact value (amount of different colours mixed to make the red), but both appears just as ‘red’ to the consumers.
    — On March 5th, 2009 at 11:04 am [permarlink]
  • Twanet Said:

    Hello there! Long time! A lot has happened in the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at funky designs around me, since it is “fashionable” to do funky designs, lets say for instance an Ice-cream shop would there be a certain color to go with that or should one keep it plain and simple with one or two basic colors? Like KFC?
    Since we are on the reds, Milkylane is also red, not so?

    — On April 14th, 2009 at 2:11 pm [permarlink]
  • Mokokoma Mokhonoana Said:


    Hi, there are certain colours that are usually (over-) used in some industries. E.g. many soap brands tend to use the colour blue, as it gives a feeling of purity and cleanliness.

    Most of the time colour is used to communicate, as the are meanings and emotional connections behind colours.

    In relation to logo design, colour can also serves as a mnemonic tool for brands.

    The colour to use for the ‘ice cream shop’ will only be limited by the design brief. But no industry is ‘forced’ to use certain colours only.

    Yes, Milkylane is also red, though not an exact shade of red as KFC.

    (Please refer to the comment above yours as Dithapelo’s question is similar to yours in regards to two brands both using the same colour)
    — On April 14th, 2009 at 3:32 pm [permarlink]


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